The American predisposition to rank pretty much everything seeps into nearly every facet of national discourse. Usually the domain of academia, the economy and sports, our tendency to create a hierarchy has crossed into more malleable arenas like the arts and politics -- the sort of hard-to-quantify categories that fuel heated debate and endless reconfigurations.
So naturally, after 44 presidents and well over two centuries, Americans have spent a great deal of time ranking their current and former leaders. Names like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln naturally rise to the top after benefitting from the kindness of history and a sense of mammoth achievement. But what of the last eight decades or so?
The Modern U.S Presidency: Unique Challenges
The era of the modern Presidency has been marked by tectonic shifts in society, technology and the unlocking of a once-hermetic outside world. Who, since the advent of television, airplanes, atomic bombs, and the Internet, ranks foremost in American minds? And, more importantly, why? The former question is easy to quantify among the living who remember. The latter question is a wholly different matter.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center delineated Presidents along generational lines, asking Americans of various ages Which President during your lifetime has done the best job? The results were scattershot, depending on the age of the respondent.
Respondents were separated along four generational categories: Millennial; Gen X; Baby Boomers; and the Silent Generation (colloquially termed the Greatest Generation.)
The two biggest winners across the board were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, with 34 percent and 49 percent of the vote respectively across all four generations. Third? The shocking (to some) pick of Barack Obama.
Along age lines, Millenials and Gen X-ers showed the strongest affinity for Clinton, while Boombers and the Silents prefer Reagan (though it should be noted a substantial number of Gen X-ers still have a place in their heart for Reagan).
The results present a quandary. Clinton and Reagan are miles apart by nearly every policy measure, as well as their approach to the job. So how, in our hyper-speed television, radio and internet era, did Clinton and Reagan manage to mingle in American minds? Achievements matter a great deal, but so does the ability to leave a substantive imprint on the collective social conscious and a legacy worth talking about. Academics have their own theories.
According to Dr. Meena Bose, Director of Hofstra University's Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, a mix of circumstances, happy memories and lasting impact dictate perceptions.
The modern Presidential era has been colored by campaigns to outline history's draft assessment with Presidential Libraries, memoirs, speaking engagements and the prolonged stints in the spotlight well after leaving office.
Clinton unabashedly falls into the category, with a memoir and more recently a policy tome Back To Work. But according to Bose, his efforts in the long term may all be for naught.
While Presidents have become much more attentive to their legacies, I think their legacy is largely dependent upon what the perception is of what they accomplished in office, she said.
Bose, who co-edited Making the Grade: The Uses and Abuses of Presidential Ratings, said all the libraries and memoirs in the world can't change the substance of a President's stay in office.
Reagan's legacy remains intact largely due to the efforts of his party and former colleagues in holding him as an exemplar of Republican values.
I think that illustrates his continuing dominance within the party, and that there hasn't been a Republican leader with that force since, Bose said. It's what they did, how they shaped American politics through the force of their personality.
That force of personality is arguably one of the only connectors between Reagan and Clinton, according to Barbara Perry, Senior Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, a nonpartisan institute that studies the presidency.
Charisma - Important Factor in Presdential Success
John F. Kennedy had a strong showing in Pew's poll, and Perry believes Clinton and Reagan can draw similarities to the 35th president -- namely their outsized charisma.
What makes them different and sets them apart? It's charisma, Perry said. They are larger than life. These three men all had that in spades.
Serving two terms doesn't hurt either, Perry and Meena said.
Almost by definition two terms presidents have an advantage when it comes to ratings, Meena said. But that indicates less of an interest in creating a legacy.
Which brings us to the bizarre case of Barack Obama, a man able to control a podium and speak with a commanding cadence. The tools, according to Perry, are there. But the execution falls short.
Part of it is the way he chooses to present himself, she said, noting an admittedly scrawny physique that isn't complimented by the grandiosity of the White House's environs. The stagecraft was very poor for him. I have made this case that he has not seized the symbolic presidency.
That failure to capture the symbolic presidency has Obama walking down a cavernous hallway to announce the successful killing of Osama bin Laden. It has him speaking at podiums, camera's trained so far back the presidential seal looks like a nickel. Such a faux pas may seem trivial, but in the modern era of continuous coverage, a President's image is definitive.
It taps into the hearts and minds of the American people, Perry said. It taps into ideas that may not be true but that people want to believe in as true.
Obama's performance at mastering the presidency in time for next year's election will likely open or close the door to a second term -- and keep alive some hope that he'll be counted among presidential greats.